Wednesday, 7 March 2012

John Lanchester "Capital"

What a strangely likeable book this is.  Not really a novel - you’d have to think that if Lanchester didn’t already have a name his publishers might have said, “Nice ideas, but it doesn’t really hang together”.  And it’s formulaic:  a sweep through the lives of people living or working in Pepys Road, one of those London streets once home to poor immigrants and now sought after by the nouveau-riche, right on the edge of the great financial crash. The characters play out the formula: Roger, the markets man and his wife Arabella, close to caricatures; Mark, Roger’s narcissistic deputy who believes he can outplay the markets; Smitty, a kind of Banksy figure who has made pots of money from his challenging and illegal urban installations; Parker, Smitty’s wannabe assistant, with all the aspiration but none of the talent; Quentina, the rejected asylum seeker from Zimbabwe working illegally as a traffic warden; Freddie, the phenomenally gifted Senegalese footballer breaking into the bigtime; Zbigniew and Matya, Polish and Hungarian seekers after a better life in unfriendly London;  the  Kamal family who run the corner shop and have an uneasy relationship with militant Islam; and Petunia, the elderly widow who has lived all her uneventful life in Pepys Road. Interesting things happen to all these people, and there is a plot device that should tie them together and drive the story but just doesn’t.  Someone is harassing the occupants of Pepys Road, starting with postcards saying “We want what you have”, progressing to silent videotapes moving up and down the road and zooming in randomly on their properties and then an abusive website and dead birds posted through letterboxes. Unfortunately, a lot of the time you just forget about all that because you’re more interested in what’s happening to the characters in their individual lives.  It’s a pity that Lanchester tried to do too much, because he is a wonderful writer (The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips).  He deals with dark themes but swerves away in the end from the full consequences.  Quentina, for instance, will be deported to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, “but Quentina had a secret weapon.  She knew things would not be like this forever.”  Things go horribly wrong for Freddie, but there is still a happy ending for him. But with all that, it’s a book that makes you like the writer. It makes you feel we’re all in this together.

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